Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The joys of travelling in Asia

I'm writing the longhand version of this blog while sitting in the dirtiest restaurant I have ever seen (it's Oreos for lunch today!), in a desolate town I don't know the name of in northern Cambodia.  I was dropped off here to wait for a bus I'm not certain will ever come.  I'm the only westerner here and I'm just hoping my pronunciation of the town I'm trying to get to, "Ban Lung" is correct because I don't like the idea of being stranded in this place.

This is just one of the many frustrating encounters I've had on the public transport here in the past week .  I keep trying to convince myself these experiences are all part of my adventure but after one too many dusty, tailbone crushing rides, the mantra is wearing thin.

I spent six hours on the back of a songthaew (which apparently literally means "two planks" on the back of a truck) to get to the Kong Lor cave in Laos, a seven kilometre cave system accessed by boat.  I couldn't be sure until I finally got there that I was actually going to the right place.  I sat among the locals who seemed bemused to have a "farang" or "foreigner" on board.  The truck was loaded with sacks of rice, pots and pans, suitcases, vegetables, almost everything but the kitchen sink.  Just when I thought we were finally pulling out of the bus station and getting on the road the songthaew stopped 30 metres from where we'd set off, to pick up, not the kitchen sink but a full size fridge.  The fridge was promptly tied onto the back and somehow managed to balance precariously there for the entire six hour trip.  To my amusement, the very same fridge sailed past, balanced upright on a motorised dugout canoe, as I chugged my way back from my tour of the Kong Lor cave system, apparently bound for a village on the other side. 

The return trip from the cave south to the town of Pakse was almost equally as interesting (and trying).  Once again in a songthaew I was dropped on the main single lane north-south highway to hail a local bus going south.  Local buses in Laos seem not to run to a set schedule, basically they pick up anyone or anything willing to pay for a ride.  Needless to say there's a lot of stopping.  After changing buses in the town of Thakeak, the bus stopped down the road in another town.  Here all the passengers waited patiently on the bus for about 15 minutes before the bus did a lap around the bus station and stopped again, where we were all forced off the bus for about 30 minutes.  We were eventually allowed back on but only after having our tickets checked for what must have been the fourth time.

The bus was full and I felt positive we'd make a little more progress this time, having travelled only a short distance so far, but it wasn't to be.  Just five minutes down the road we stopped outside a high school where about 25 teenage boys, clutching huge striped canvas bags, were waiting.  There was no room but in laos there is also no such thing as "seating capacity".  Their bags were swiftly hoisted onto the roof and plastic stools handed out.  At one count, 25 boys sat on stools, straddling each other in the aisle.  To their credit they remained like that for the next six hours without complaint, while the bus continued to stop for passengers and toilet breaks at 20 minute intervals.  During one of these stops the bus was invaded by women and children selling meat on a stick.  Needless to say I was glad to get off the bus when it finally arrived in Pakse only two and a half hours late.

Just two days later I found myself on the road south again, literally.  I was on the road in the baking sun waiting for the driver and his sidekick to change a tyre (meanwhile, still sitting in the dirty restaurant, two ladies have just carried a huge tub of whole raw chickens past me, covered in flies.  Oreos were a smart choice for lunch!)  The tyre had blown mid journey, sending the sleeping Italian couple in front of me jumping about ten feet in the air. 

The speed at which the tyre was changed suggested this is a regular occurence, although the sound it made when we got going again suggested we weren't going to make it very far.  So I spent another wasted hour waiting for a bus I didn't know would come.

So after these trips I think my concerns about being dropped in the middle of nowhere to wait for yet another bus are justified.  I've eaten all my Oreos and still have about two more hours to wait.  Fingers crossed this much-anticipated bus is on time!

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